On the morning of June 6, 1994 a telltale roar prompted the crowd around Sainte Mere Eglise to look to the skies. Parachutes popped open all around as 1,000 men tumbled from their aircraft toward the landing zone below. Led by 38 veterans that the French press had dubbed the papys sauteurs, or the jumping grandpas, the paratroopers drifted to the ground, with only one of the grandpas sustaining a minor injury. The spectacle gave way to ceremonies and speechifying by a glittering assortment of queens, crown princes, presidents, and prime ministers from countries both large and small. The 45,000 veterans in attendance were treated like the heroes they were.
The events surrounding the 50th anniversary of D-Day formed a year-long cottage industry in France with more than 350 events, ranging from a World War II themed jazz festival to the construction of three new major military museums. The 50th anniversary tide of historical memory had arguably begun to swell the year before with the 1993 release of Steven Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. And the 1994 ceremonies, as it turned out, represented only the leading edges of the World War II wave that struck America’s collective consciousness. The full force of the wave did not crash ashore until the 1998 release of the Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan, and the publication of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. Next followed Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s collaborative effort on the HBO miniseries adaptation of Band of Brothers in 2001. The tide of remembrance receded only slowly, marked by the opening of the National World War II Memorial in 2004.
April 2017 marks another watershed moment in America’s military history – the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into the cataclysm that was World War I. Much like the famous Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial sits atop Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mere and stands as silent witness to the brutality of war, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial sits near Romange-sous-Montfaucon, keeping silent vigil over a landscape that had once been cut by trenches during the carnage of the final stages of World War I. While the Normandy American Cemetery, with its nearly 10,000 crosses, still hosts throngs of visitors and pilgrims every day, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, with its nearly 15,000 crosses, lies nearly silent as only a tiny trickle of visitors pause to honor the fallen.
World War II transformed the United States and the world in myriad ways. Within that historical avalanche of events, the campaign in Normandy stands alongside Stalingrad, El Alamein, Kursk, Midway, Guadalcanal, and many others as a pivotal moment. Certainly Normandy, and the titanic war of which it is a part, is deserving of historical fame. But in many ways the American experience in World War I was even more transformative. It was with its declaration of war in April 1917 that America first took its place on the world stage, a place it never relinquished. It was in World War I that America came of age, muscling its way to the international table to sit beside its European and Asian rivals. It was the beginning of what many historians now term the “American Century.” There now is a widely accepted school of thought that views World War I and World War II as integral parts of the same conflict. In that view World War II, for all of its ferocity and carnage, merely continued and propelled forward changes that had their beginnings in World War I.
World War I was, perhaps, the most important single event, or series of events, of modern times. Within that war, the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne stands out as the pivotal American moment. Led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, the American Expeditionary Force sought to expel the Germans from a pivotal sector of their Hindenburg Line of defenses. The battle, involving over a million American military personnel, raged from September 26 until the end of the conflict on November 11, 1918. After bogging down amidst the formidable German defenses and suffering from critical logistics breakdowns, the American forces eventually made great gains, but at a tremendous cost. More than 26,000 US soldiers were killed, and over 110,000 were wounded, making the Meuse-Argonne far and away the most costly battle in terms of lives lost in American history.
Given the importance of the conflict, the intensity of the fighting, and the tragic losses incurred, the history of World War I in the United States is sadly obscure and intellectually incomplete. A trip to any major bookstore will reveal shelf after shelf of books on all aspects of World War II, while the few books on World War I languish in a small, dusty store corner. Americans remain fascinated by the towering personalities of World War II and find World War I to be oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps it is because World War I was such a slow moving affair that resulted in such a short-lived and ill-advised peace. Set against the evil of Hitler, the menace of Stalin, and the stubborn resolve of Churchill, the leaders of World War I, men like David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson, seem stodgy and in over their collective heads. Perhaps some of the problem lies in the communications technologies of the time. World War II can be experienced in sharp film images, some of which are even in color. World War I images, though, are herky-jerky and mute.
Europeans and their historians take rather more note of World War I, where it is often still termed the Great War. The heightened public and historical awareness of the events of 1914-1918 across the pond is in part because the conflict had such an outsized effect on the course of Europe’s collective future. The Great War shook the foundations of Europe that had been centuries in the making, shattering the Russian Empire, destroying what had been the Austrian Empire, leaving embittered nations in Germany and Italy that were susceptible to the rise of dictatorial regimes, weakening France, and crushing the Liberal Party in Great Britain.
The historiography surrounding the Great War in Europe has followed an interesting pattern. First there was a great flood of books published mainly by the wartime participants themselves taking credit for successes and laying blame for failures in the largest single series of events that the world had ever seen. After the coming and going of World War II, the study of the Great War fell out of favor with the few historians remaining labeling the earlier conflict futile, its participants bumbling, and its tale less than compelling. As the Cold War frightened the modern world, the Great War seemed ever more antiquated and less worthy of historical attention other than damning its leaders as hidebound and uncaring. Only in recent years, with the complete opening of document collections and archives, has the study of the Great War undergone something of a mini Renaissance. Without societal axes to grind modern scholars have shined a much more careful light on the events of the first two decades of the twentieth century and have utilized methodologies varying from gender history to cultural studies to advance our understanding of World War I. Sadly, although the Great War is at last something of a B list celebrity in Europe, there has been no corresponding rise in prominence on this side of the Atlantic. There is a small group of American historians toiling away on research concerning World War I, from Michael Neiberg to Mark Grotelueschen, but their numbers pale in comparison to the army of US historians who work on World War II.
What makes the situation all the more difficult to understand is the remarkable literacy of World War I. Almost all of the untold millions of officers and men who took part in the conflict could read and write, and many were inveterate correspondents, diarists, and poets. From Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s diary that lays bare the mind of a strategist to collections of vivid letters sent home to loved ones penned by humble enlisted men, the vast archive of written source material on World War I is a historian’s dream world. Researchers can access the treasure trove of historical raw material at archives big and small, from the US National Archives to dusty and seldom used local collections in France and Germany.
The new work being done on World War I in the US and Europe is fascinating and in many ways represents history at its best. The focus of that work, though, tends toward the strategic. Was the war futile? Were the commanders of World War I innovative or stagnant in their thinking and actions? Was the war a true international turning point? While questions such as these are certainly worth a good historical pondering, the lowest levels of conflict have received even less reconsideration. What was the Great War really like for its young practitioners? Why did young men go to war, and how did violent combat interact with their humanity?
In the immediate aftermath of World War I several veterans of the conflict penned testaments to their experiences that still stand as classics of the genre, including Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. Since those early days, though, too few writers have turned their pens to the real, gut level experience of the war. For the laundry list of reasons catalogued above, World War I from the standpoint of the regular soldier remains something of a historical unknown. And the case is even worse regarding the lives and times of United States soldiers. Other than the famous few, the historical anomalies like Sergeant Alvin York, the US serviceman toiling for his country in the American Expeditionary Force at St. Mihiel or the Meuse Argonne remains sadly historically anonymous.
Patrick Gregory and Elizabeth Nurser’s An American on the Western Front marks an important first step to fill the historiographical lacuna of the experience of American soldiers fighting and dying in the trenches of France. The study is based on the extensive letter collection of Arthur ‘Clifford’ Kimber, uncle of Elizabeth Nurser, an early volunteer, an avid correspondent, and a true man of his time. Blended with a deft editing hand of historical background, Kimber’s wonderfully written letters make for compelling reading. Gregory’s narrative history is detailed, accurate, and well written, but it is the letters themselves that really set this study apart and make it so indispensable for both laymen and field experts alike. Through Kimber’s many letters, readers are able to access the human level of war – the essential humanity of a young Californian with great dreams thrown into a maelstrom of events that would eventually take his life. Kimber’s letters are full of texture and nuance, ranging from wondering about his life’s goals, to meetings with the famous and near famous, to efforts to spark and receive love. Here we see the full picture of an American Great War soldier – from his pre-war decision to enter the military, to train journeys across the country with his mother, to his petty squabbles with friends, to his decisions to join the flying corps, to the nearly endless boredom, to questions of his eventual mortality. Here we see war as it really was rather than the type of war that we so often read about.
An American on the Western Front forms a compelling story that allows modern readers to access World War I for what it really was – a war fought by young men with real lives and dreams. A war of puffing locomotives, boundless patriotism, scheming officers, bad food, fleeting glimpses of love, personal foibles, rivalries great and small, distant families, endless boredom and training, and eruptions of death and destruction. Patrick Gregory and Elizabeth Nurser’s work allows us all a fascinating window to a dimly understood past – a past that has lain historically dormant for too long.